NU at Purdue
Saturday, Oct. 3. 11:00 am CDT
radio internet coverage.
Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Purdue
by Jonathan Hodges
Both Northwestern (2-2, 0-1) and Purdue (1-3, 0-0) enter their matchup in West
Lafayette wanting to stay out of the Big Ten basement heading into the crucial
middle stretch of the 2009 season. The Wildcats are coming off of consecutive
blown fourth quarter leads and are looking to get back into the postseason
hunt. Meanwhile, Purdue is looking to establish its footing under first year
coach Danny Hope (the fourth of five new head coaches NU faces in the first six
weeks of the 2009 season) after dropping a heartbreaker to in-state rival Notre
Dame last Saturday night.
On defense, both teams have struggled despite
having seemingly strong units coming into the year. NU ranks 87th nationally in
scoring defense, allowing 27.5 points per game, while Purdue is allowing over 30
points and 400 yards per game. The Boilermakers and the Wildcats are both
looking to utilize the talent that they have on defense and turn things around
and to turn up the takeaway rate (NU has just 7 on the year while Purdue has
Meanwhile, both teams have offensive stars that have seemingly come
out of nowhere. For the 'Cats, that guy is QB Mike Kafka, who has completed
over 70 percent of his passes this season and thrown for 1,049 yards and five
touchdowns despite being considered just a running quarterback. Purdue has
discovered talented sophomore running back Ralph Bolden, who has already amassed
488 rushing yards and is averaging over six yards per carry in Purdue's new
These teams have both faltered in recent weeks and are
looking to break losing streaks of two (NU) and three (Purdue), and something
has to give in this matchup that looks like a potential shootout on paper. The
winner will likely be the team that can get their defense in gear first and can
win the turnover battle; both teams have a -0.75 turnover margin per game in
2009 and something has to give there, too.
Expect a relatively
high-scoring and hard fought battle between these two teams who both need a win
to stay out of the bottom of the Big Ten standings. Northwestern will be
looking to spoil another team's homecoming after doing so multiple times in
2008, while Purdue is seeking revenge for the 'Cats' big win last year in
Tiller's final season.
Opening Line: Purdue by
Who Should Win:
Purdue. The Boilermakers are
playing at home and feature a potent running game; breakout sophomore Bolden has
already racked up 488 yards and four TDs (6.2 yards per carry), and they also
have Jaycen Taylor returning from an injury, who has contributed another 112
yards and three touchdowns. Northwestern's defense is yielding over 4.5 yards
per carry this season and seemingly hasn't been able to takle over most of the
last three games. That alone gives the Boilers a good chance to run their way
Purdue's defense looks
basically as bad as Northwestern's. They've been burned for over 30 points per
game this year and rank 108th nationally in total defense (421.5 yards per game
yielded). Meanwhile, the NU offense has shown that it can effectively move the
ball through the air, ranking 16th nationally with 286.3 yards per game
passing. Mike Kafka has been proficient with his arm, completing over 72
percent of his passes this season. If the Wildcats can limit turnovers on
offense, they have a very good chance of knocking off Purdue on the
What to Look For:
Northwestern Offense /
After opening up the playbook following two weeks of
running the ball against lesser opponents, NU's passing game is moving the ball
fairly well in 2009. The Wildcats rank 16th nationally in passing offense and
are 22nd nationally in pass efficiency. The 'Cats are 31st nationally,
averaging 33 points per game, and, despite the lack of a running game over the
past two weeks (under 100 yards per game rushing even after removing sack
yardage), NU is 36th nationally in total offense (416.8 yards per
The bugaboo for the NU offense, though, has been turnovers. A
late interception against Syracuse and two late fumbles against Minnesota cost
NU the chance to win those games after the 'Cats carried leads into the fourth
quarter on both occasions. And against both Minnesota and Eastern Michigan,
Kafka interceptions in the red zone have cost the Wildcats precious
Despite a relatively poor showing against Minnesota, NU is still
converting 56 percent of its third downs and has been able to move the ball down
the field methodically quite often. All of this, again, despite the lack of a
featured running back and a consistent running game that has been seemingly
abandoned the past two weeks.
This has created quite a problem that has
led to the aforementioned turnover issues, which is the opposing pass rush.
Without a running game to worry about, opponents have sent their pass rushers in
for the kill and have succeeded; Kafka has been sacked 10 times for -84 yards on
the year, and that doesn't count times he was hurried, hit after throwing, or
forced to scramble.
The offensive line will face yet another test against
Purdue, who feature pass rushing specialist DE Ryan Kerrigan, who already has
two sacks on the year. Senior LB Jason Werner is also creating trouble, as he
has three sacks, eight total tackles for loss, an interception, and a forced
fumble. The Boilers also have S Torri Williams, who is second on the team in
tackles and is a key member of the secondary.
But, the Boilermaker
defense, despite all of their experience and talent, have fallen short in 2009
and are allowing yards by the dozen. They rank near the bottom nationally in
most defensive statistical categories, with the worst being total defense where
they come in at 108th nationally. They are also 93rd nationally in pass
defense, yielding 244 yards per game through the air, which bodes well for NU's
The key to the game will be whether the NU
offensive line can hold up against the Purdue pass rush. If so, expect Kafka to
pick apart Purdue and NU to amass quite a few passing yards. If not, expect
more turnovers and an implosion similar to the fourth quarter last week (where
NU had just eight yards of offense and two fumbles).
Defense / Purdue Offense
Northwestern's defense has been having
troubles of its own as of late, allowing teams to do almost anything they want
against them. Against Eastern Michigan and Syracuse, long plays doomed the
'Cats, and against Minnesota, a churning ground game and NU's lack of tackling
allowed the Gophers to convert over 50 percent of their third down
Purdue has converted to a pass-first spread attack (Tiller's
signature offense) to more of a ground-based attack with sophomore standout
Bolden as the primary ballcarrier. They've been rather successful, too,
averaging 32.5 points per game in 2009 and racking up 176.5 rushing yards per
game. Senior QB Joey Elliot has also proved to be consistent, throwing for 963
yards and seven touchdowns.
The Wildcats' defense must work to improve
its tackling, especially by the front seven, in order to try to contain Purdue's
rushing attack and force Elliot to throw the football. If they can do that,
good things can happen, as Elliot is completing just over 60 percent of his
passes but has six interceptions on the year. The Boilers have also lost five
fumbles on the year.
The key to the game on this side of the ball is NU's
run defense against Purdue's Bolden. The Wildcats look like they have a long
way to come on the tackling front and finding a way to get off those offensive
line blocks, but it is possible considering what this unit was able to do a year
If Northwestern can't stop the Purdue running game, things could get
ugly quickly for NU, as it has in recent meetings when the 'Cats couldn't stop
the Boilermaker running backs. Last year, the key to NU's win was forcing
turnovers after taking a big lead in the first half.
And in case the
'Cats manage to contain the ground game, Purdue can always go to the air as they
have a slew of more than competent receivers, including junior Keith Smith, who
leads the Boilers in receptions with 12 and yardage with
Special teams can always factor into
a game, and NU must be on the watch for Purdue kick and punt returner Aaron
Valentin, who averages 15.3 yards per punt return (he has a TD already this
year) and 20.6 yards per kick return. The only issue there has been fumbles or
muffs on returns, with two of those directly contributing to a home loss against
Northern Illinois two weeks ago.
The Wildcats have been vulnerable to
kickoff returns, with Minnesota averaging 26.2 yards per kick return, and the
'Cats have allowed 7.3 yards per punt return as well (on just three returns; 11
of NU's punts have not been returned). NU's kickoff coverage and kickoff
distance must improve to keep opponents deep in their own end, something the
2008 'Cats did fairly well.
On the other hand, NU's return game has been
lacking, to say the least. NU is 95th nationally on kickoff returns and 101st
nationally on punt returns. This has forced NU to start many drives deep in its
own end this season, and puts NU behind the eight-ball in the field position
game relatively early. Hopefully NU can find the right return men and blocking
scheme to finally break one.
Both teams have fairly reliable kickers:
NU's Stefan Demos is 15-of-16 on XPs and 4-of-4 on FG attempts this year, while
Purdue's Carson Wiggs is 16-of-17 on XPs and 2-of-3 on FG attempts, with his
only miss beyond 50 yards.
Third Down Conversions: NU saw its very good stats drop
a bit last week, but the 'Cats still rank eighth nationally, converting over 56
percent of their third downs, while allowing just 35 percent of opponents' third
down conversions. Purdue is squarely in the middle of the pack with a 40
percent conversion rate, while on defense they are a disappointing 90th,
allowing a 43 percent conversion rate. Hopefully, this translates into some
long NU scoring drives.
Spread Offense: The 'Cats continue to
spread it around to many different receivers, with 13 different players catching
passes this year and five different guys accounting for TD grabs. No player
accounts for more than 20 percent of receptions (Zeke Markshausen leads NU with
19 receptions, or just over 19 percent).
Second Quarter Scoring:
NU is outscoring its opponents 58-24 in the second period, while Purdue has been
outscored 56-27 in that quarter this season.
Two-Deep Changes: NU
saw no major changes in this week's depth chart, although backup linebackers
David Arnold (who was injured for the first three weeks of the season) and true
freshman Roderick Goodlow have moved into the backup outside linebacker slots,
overtaking Stone Pinckney and Bryce McNaul. Goodlow is one of three true
freshman on NU's two-deep (the other two, RB Arby Fields and OL Patrick Ward,
have already seen the field this year and have played in all four
Northwestern: RB Alex
Daniel (ankle, out for season), CB Justan Vaughn (leg, questionable), RB Stephan
Simmons (leg, questionable), OL Desmond Taylor (illness,
The biggest question mark on NU's current injury list is
RB Simmons, who has sat out the last two weeks with a leg injury. The 'Cats
could definitely use his explosiveness and experience as NU is averaging just
95.5 yards rushing over the past two games (with sacks excluded).
Williams, CB Sherrick McManis, RB Jeravin Matthews, WR Sidney Stewart, and LB
David Arnold all returned to action on Saturday. DE Corey Wootton, S Brad
Phillips, LB Bryce McNaul, and DT Corbin Bryant all came out of the game at
various points with minor dings, but all returned to action
Thankfully, most NU players have seemingly recovered after the
list grew very long in the game against Syracuse. Even with key components
back, though, NU fell short last week.
Purdue: DE Nickcaro
Golding (dismissed from team), OL Eric Hedstrom (questionable, shoulder), LS
Andy Huffman (questionable, arm), WR Tommie Thomas (questionable, ankle), TE
Colton McKey (questionable, knee).
Purdue has no major injuries to speak
of (most are backups or special teamers).
Northwestern 35 - Purdue 31
Although there have been plenty jumping off
of the NU bandwagon, I'll stick with my preseason prediction and say that the
Wildcats will find a way to put things back together and end up with a win. The
keys are the NU OL giving Kafka just enough time to get rid of the football, and
the NU defense tackling better than it has over the past two weeks, both of
which I predict NU will do just well enough to pull off a close
Coach Fitz is a fundamentals-oriented guy, especially on
defense, and it's hard to see him letting the 'Cats' tackling skills continue to
slip. And the offensive line has too much young talent to continue their
issues; if anything, the younger guys will get thrown on the field as a wakeup
call (which has already happened to some extent).
Even with NU's porous
defense over the past two weeks, many of those issues have been correctable,
meanwhile Purdue's defense has looked fairly poor all season long. This game
could very well go the other way, especially if NU can't stop Purdue's ground
game, but I expect NU to use this game to turn its season around.
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